‘A Revolutionary Act’: The Power Of A 21st Century Library Card

Tracie Hall
Tracie Hall, incoming executive director at the American Library Association. Jason Marck / WBEZ
Tracie Hall
Tracie Hall, incoming executive director at the American Library Association. Jason Marck / WBEZ

‘A Revolutionary Act’: The Power Of A 21st Century Library Card

According to a new Gallup poll, Americans visited the library more often than they did the movie theater in 2019. Perhaps more than any other institution, the American Library Association understands why. Since 1876, the world’s oldest and largest library association has been working to provide leadership for the improvement of libraries across the country. Now, it’s getting a new executive director.

Tracie Hall, who will be the first African American woman to lead the Chicago-based organization, stopped by Reset to talk accessibility, activism and the enduring power of information.

On why she wanted the job

Tracie Hall: Everything is leading us back to knowledge and information, how important it is. But I think one of the things that spoke loudest to me at this particular time, … is that I fundamentally believe that access to relevant and dependable information is a human right. And I really see, at this point where we are in history, that public libraries in particular and libraries of all kinds, school libraries, etc., prison libraries are really the bedrock of democracy. So I saw this role as having an opportunity. If libraries have always been on the front lines, I think, of social justice, it was an opportunity for me to be present and to be there and to make sure that I helped to continue and steer that conversation.

On the role of a librarian

Hall: I was always attracted to the idea of librarians as activists. … Librarians, that role of really keeping track of the written record, that’s our job description. And also keeping track of the marketplace of ideas, that is our job description. And also, to a certain degree, being agnostic about it, being relentless about it, not necessarily inserting our opinion and not editorializing the body of information, but to make sure that every user has access to an array of arguments, even competing arguments. … It isn’t necessarily just a sequence of tasks we perform. I think there’s a way of thinking about information and knowledge that I think some of the best librarians demonstrate throughout their lives.

On libraries as a resource for vulnerable populations

Hall: I’ve learned to believe that having and using a library card is a revolutionary act. It is something that cannot only open up pathways for the user, but it also invites a user into a larger civic conversation that is really hard, maybe, to even talk about or explain. But I think that if you are a library user, and I love people who use libraries all the time because they talk about how they could not imagine not having access to a library and how many books they have and what they’ve read, the programs that they’ve attended, I think that the fact that in this country, at your school, at your university, you know, public libraries, etc., that anybody, regardless of their walk of life, can have access to the same information. That’s rare today. And that’s something that I think is really important. And when it comes to vulnerable populations, we have to fight for that. I mean, I see my role Day One as really being one of the chief advocates for library access.

On diversity in America’s libraries

Hall: When we think about diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility, … we are thinking about how do libraries and librarians mitigate any kind of barrier that would prevent anyone from having the kinds of information that they need to illuminate, you know, their lives or just to move them forward and what are some of those barriers? Some of those barriers are that really important materials may not be available in Spanish. … We want … that information to be there. … We want to be thinking about who is actually sitting behind that desk or standing behind that desk or making that decision about what books are to be ordered or what types of library services should be available in the community. We want that population to mirror the community. … We want to make sure that we are creating and building a librarianship that is of the people and by the people. … We need to have a cadre, a core of librarians that really understand the informatic needs the communities around them, not necessarily because they’re learning about those communities, but also because they are of those communities.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to hear the entire conversation.